September 8, 1990
Lake Geneva Triathlon
The Lake Geneva Triathlon provided a great opportunity for a destination race in a beautiful and rich setting in the upper Midwest. Held a week after Labor Day with low humidity, ideal lake water temperatures, and the family tourist season over. The low key tri was a tenth of the size of the 2,000 plus athletes in the Chicago Sun-Times Triathlon raced in a couple of weeks earlier. Lake Geneva is one of the prettiest lakes in Wisconsin with clear water, sandy beaches, a shoreline dotted with both deciduous and evergreen trees, and lined with cottages built for early 20th century millionaires from Chicago. The cottages are bigger than most college fraternity houses. Cottages hell, they’re summer mansions with architectural styles of attractive Victorian, Queen Anne, Prairie, Bungalow, and vernacular which means no clear style but it costs a lot. They’re classics, beautiful, and impressive. If not for high property taxes and Wisconsin winters, we’d all want to own one and pass cottages down from generation to generation like the Wrigleys, Sears, Wards, Pinkertons, and other famous families. Two quaint towns anchor the lake, Lake Geneva on the east and Fontana to the west. The Olympic distance triathlon was based in Fontana.
Race day offered full sun, minimal winds, and a faraway smell of motorboat exhaust. The smell sensory is the most powerful of all senses in associating memories. One of my favorite smells is exhaust from outboard boat motors. The two-cycle fuel oil with its mixture oil and gasoline provided a unique smell on a personal level that brings fond memories of two childhood family vacations in Leland on Lake Leelanau in northern Michigan during August of 1967 and 1968. Because of those memories, we planned to provide opportunities for our kids to create their own fond memories of childhood vacation destinations and experiences for a lifetime of pleasure. It would allow them to remember the travel experience of getting there, the uniqueness of the sites, the people, the smells, and the sounds of the different places. Each vacation would be a present to our kids to mentally open up again and again to enjoy the pleasure of their childhood. For this race though, all of these thoughts would be reality for the future.
In constant search of safety and speed improvements, a new piece of equipment went into the race toolbox, a triathlon specific Body Glove brand sleeveless wetsuit. A chest and leg hugging outfit, grey in color for the legs and back, with a bright orange torso front. Made me look like a wingless, featherless Baltimore oriole in it. Didn’t care. Treading water at the starting line became a non-event. No more burning energy worrying about drowning or kicked or punched by other races. The neoprene outfit defected each blow to the body. Once squeezed in the damn thing, the Lake’s peaceful setting became ever so relaxing while floating in the flat water waiting for the race to begin. The wetsuit was almost like a thunder jacket for triathletes. It reduced stress and calmed me down without drugs. No barking either. Treading water for the deep water start turned into bobbing while waiting for the starting horn to sound alongside three or four members of the University of Notre Dame swim team; at least their sweats represented them as such prior to entering the water. Their V shaped bodies indicated they may be legit. Hopefully part of a relay team. My back-up plan was to catch them on the bike or if necessary, at the start of the run as an early steep hill quickly separated the stronger running triathletes from the weaker wannabes.
The starting horn sounded and off we went. The V shaped swimmers quickly formed an inverted V shaped arrowhead with me swimming behind them. The wetsuit provided more speed with less effort and a quieter stroke compared to previous triathlons. When swimming near the start underwater faint sounds of boat propellers grew louder. Similar to train whistles approaching a road crossing. Paranoid about getting plowed over by a boat but before panicking, I adopted a safety protocol when passing close to commuter train tracks between home and downtown Chicago: Stop. Look. Listen. A couple of boats with skiers in tow were headed away from us. No need to panic. Thinking all is calm, a swimmer stroked right over the top of me. When pushed or pulled under or plowed over in any other race to date, it pissed me off and freaked me out. Never liked to be held underwater against my will. Always flustered me when fighting back to the surface. This time, now in my thunder wetsuit, instead of panicking, I relaxed and slowly floated to the water line again. Oh the comfort and safety of this racing technology breakthrough. Should’ve bought a damn wetsuit in 1986.
The bike leg offered an uneventful course with rolling hills, limited views away from the lake, and occasional gravel covered blacktop which kept us focused to find a safe line of passage through the turns. At least two people lost their balance and gained patches of road rash. These blossomed into nasty body art, or strawberries as cyclists call them due to a resemblance of the fruit in color and texture as it healed. Most people avoided mishaps and successfully returned for the bike-to-run transition.
During the run absolutely no one avoided the killer hill that lurked around the first turn some 600 meters into the final leg of the triathlon. The pain in the hamstrings and quads during the first few steps of the run after sitting on a bike seat for 60+ minutes shot right up through the nervous system and silently screamed to the brain that our bodies were hurting and under stress. A successful tactic to use when running up hills is to look forward keeping the eyes straight ahead so you don’t look up the hill to calculate how much more pain your body needs to endure.
Five years earlier, Craig and Connie Martin, the couple who introduced Chris and me, joined us for a ride on the largest wooden rollercoaster in the world at Great America, 30 minutes due east of Lake Geneva. The four of us jumped into the cars and were slowly cranked up to the top. You know that gear grinding sound of going slow? Well, that’s how my knees sounded as they slowly bent and stretched on the run leg ascent which seemed like the same the length and incline of the roller coaster. I peeked forward hoping to see the crown of the hill. Found the top around the turn and another 200 meters up with near harvest ready cornfields beyond. Hope returned that the straining lungs and burning quads would earn some relief shortly. I turned the corner and saw more hill! Up the hill the body went. Moved forward by pumping arms, straining leg muscles, and the mental will to finish. No one forced me to race triathlons or specifically Lake Geneva except me. My choice for this race and to work through the pain. Finally we reached the table top portion of the out and back run course. Luckily the pain subsided once over the hilltop and on the flat part of the course. Motivation came knowing the mental rope of being pulled down the same hill as we returned would quickly bring us to the finish line.
The real fun came after the race. Chris’ best friend from high school, June, met up with us for a mile long hike along the 21 mile perimeter lake trail. This provided a backyard view of at least a dozen magnificent mansions. We also jumped on the Lake Geneva Cruise line for a boat ride around the eastern part of the lake. Much better to hear those motors when sitting on a boat taking in the views instead of having my head underwater hearing those screws come straight at me. Summed up, the Lake Geneva Triathlon should be a destination race for someone not wanting to go the Ironman distance a week later in Wisconsin. Bring the family to enjoy the summer weather without the summer crowds. Ensure you bring a wetsuit if racing!
Results: 6th overall. 1st in age group